Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Skeletons In Israel's Cabinet

HILLEL HALKIN | July 15, 2008

'The strongest reason why Ehud Olmert should resign," said a friend to me the other day, "is that he doesn't understand why he should resign."

I agree. More scandalous than any of the financial shenanigans of which Mr. Olmert stands accused is his failure to realize the difference between being a private citizen and a prime minister. Although in both cases he would be legally innocent until found guilty, the legal innocence that would have entitled him to continue living his private life is not an entitlement to run a country. Mr. Olmert appears to think otherwise. He genuinely seems to believe that if he can convince Israel's police or attorney general that he "only" broke a few electoral financing laws and wasn't involved in personal graft, or "only" double or triple-billed various organizations for his travel expenses without pocketing the extra money for himself — two "onlies," it must be said, that are looking highly unlikely — he is perfectly qualified to remain in office. If he hasn't done anything that would have landed him in jail as a private individual, why should his public life have to suffer?

But it doesn't work that way. Mr. Olmert's inability to make the distinction between private and public life is precisely why he is unsuited to continue in the latter. Although he is almost certain to be tried and convicted in the end on at least one or two of the half-dozen charges of financial impropriety now pending against him, it wouldn't matter if he wasn't. He has brought shame and embarrassment to the entire population of Israel by being a leader whose moral standards are those of a small-time racketeer without the slightest comprehension that more is expected of him than obtaining the best possible lawyers to defend himself with.

The saddest thing about Mr. Olmert's multiple entanglements with the law is that they are not atypical of Israeli politics as a whole. At first glance, a politically naive visitor to Israel might wonder why, given the prime minister's shady behavior, the leaders of rival parties have been so muted in their attacks on him. In any normal democracy, the opposition would have made mincemeat of him by now.

Did we say normal democracy? Let's start with Likud Party, from which Mr. Olmert broke away several years ago under the banner of Ariel Sharon to found the current ruling party of Kadima. You would think that Likud's leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, would be only too delighted to take advantage of the current situation in order to skewer Mr. Olmert over a high fire. And yet Mr. Netanyahu has hardly been heard from; he avoids mentioning Mr. Olmert as though he were the Evil Eye. How come? Well, Mr. Netanyahu has had his own problems in the past explaining to the police who paid some of his bills and why. Don't expect him to lead the anti-corruption charge now.

What about Avigdor Lieberman, then, the head of the conservative Yisrael Beiteinu Party, who walked out on Mr. Olmert's coalition a few months ago because, so he claimed, it was making dangerous negotiation concessions to the Palestinians? These days, to judge by the frequency with which it is mentioned by him, Mr. Lieberman seems to have trouble remembering Ehud Olmert's name. Can this just possibly be because he, too, has been under police investigation for years on suspicion of money laundering and related offenses? Like Mr. Netanyahu, he has more important things to concentrate on than corruption.

That's the opposition. Two other parties could send Mr. Olmert home overnight if either chose to drop out of his coalition. One is the Sephardic religious party, Shas. Shas has indeed been making threatening noises about ditching the Olmert government if it does not get the social legislation that it wants — but corruption? The word doesn't exist in its vocabulary. While this may seem odd in view of the fact that four or five of its leaders have gone to prison for it, it may also be why it's a word Shas prefers to forget.

The other coalition partner in whose hands Mr. Olmert's fate rests is Labor. By a strange coincidence, though, Labor's chairman, Defense Minister Barak, has himself faced repeated inquiries into straw organizations set up to bypass legal limits on private donations to his 1998 and 2000 prime-ministerial campaigns. Electoral financing, understandably, is not his favorite subject.

Such is the sorry state of Israeli politics in the summer of 2008. Every major party lives in a glass house of its own; none is about to start throwing stones. And so, although Mr. Olmert will indeed be forced to step down some time next autumn or winter after his party elects a new leader in a September primary that he most likely will not compete in, Israel will have to put up for several more months with a man who doesn't deserve to be in office for another day.

Ordinarily, this might not be an intolerably long period to wait. But in this case it is, not only because Israel cannot afford a lame-duck prime minister at a time when it needs to be preparing for fateful decisions regarding Iran, but also because Mr. Olmert has been showing worrisome signs of offering the Palestinians and Syrians irresponsible deals in the hope of going down in history as a historical peacemaker rather than as a petty chiseler. It is ironic that the very chiseling that has aroused the scorn and contempt of most Israelis has gives him a measure of protection from political attack.

Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.

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